Back when I was in graduate school, Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000) was all the rage. The book launches a powerful attack against, among other things, the takeover of public space by brand logos. Klein means well. It’s just that the book relies on and perpetuates the very system it condemns. After all, the cover of No Logo quickly became an instantly recognizable logo, an emblem of anti-consumerism. A brand.
Saying “no” to sweatshop labor meant ditching your Nikes in favor of a pair of ethically sound New Balance. So I bought the New Balance, fully aware of the irony that my “rejection” of branding was merely a matter of trading one brand for another. Klein’s No Logo tells a story: We live in an Orwellian world imprisoned by corporate agendas sold through brand propaganda. Klein’ story sells readers on a world free of brands. The book is a brilliant marketing tool.
There have always been those who have challenged consumption, or sought to opt out of the consumer lifestyle or limit their involvement with it. There are many practices that we can point to as reactions against consumer society, like ‘culture jamming’, wearing second-hand clothing, buying ‘green’ products and participating in consumer boycotts. Yet rather than offering a way out of the consumer cycle, these acts in themselves become modes of communicating status and identity within a system of consumption.
Limited consumption becomes an indicator of identity. In some circles, it is fashionable for educated, well-off people to fret about their carbon footprint and grow their own vegetables. They buy items from stores like the Body Shop, which favors environmentally friendly packaging, fair-trade relations, and non-sexist advertising. I should know, because I am one of these people (well, not the vegetables).
For the truly hardcore, “Dumpster-diving” offers another way to “escape” the world of brands – it involves foraging through giant bins at the backs of supermarkets for useable items and edible foodstuffs that have been thrown out because they are near their use-by date or have damaged packaging. Proving that trawling through trashcans isn’t just for the poor and homeless, the term was invented to explain the practices of those people with financial means who instead choose to take waste stuff for free. Apparently, supermarkets have taken to locking their bins at night in an attempt to prevent dumpster-diving.
Those practices that we might broadly term “anti-consumerist,” or view as forms of alternative consumption, are hence part of a logic of consumption by virtue of being positioned as counter to traditional consumerist principles. By boycotting certain products deemed unethical or sourcing second-hand clothes, for example, we reinforce the code through which meaning is produced in the differential relation to consumerist codes. That is, both consumption and what has been termed ‘critical consumption’ are part of the whole system of organization that makes up consumer society.
While we seem to play an active part in defining ourselves through our consumer habits—or what we might call freedom of choice—in another sense the codes that govern our value systems also operate at a deeper level. Like language itself, brands define the horizon within which meaning becomes available. Against the false option of somehow exiting the world of consumerism and branding, marketing should present brand narratives that provide a means of actively intervening within practices that shape the meaning of social and economic life. Klein’s narrative presents a world of consumers imprisoned by branded objects; we need to think of the world constituted by actively engaged branding subjects.